Thursday, 26 January 2012

What we see and what we don't

When watching the play all the way through after my appearance as the Servant, I was struck not only by the confrontations that Euripides sets up but by those he avoids showing us directly.  We don’t see Phaedra with either Hippolytus or her husband Theseus (not while she’s alive, anyway).  It’s the Nurse who tells Hippolytus that Phaedra desires him.  Some of that conversation takes place offstage, a dramatic device that enables Euripides to avoid showing Hippolytus and Phaedra together while yet allowing Hippolytus to communicate indirectly with Phaedra, since she overhears angry words that he addresses at the Nurse and that makes her decide to kill herself.  We last see Phaedra at the exact mid-point of the play.  By the time Theseus enters she is dead and he is met by her corpse, but again there is indirect communication between them because Theseus finds a note clenched in her hand in which she accuses Hippolytus of raping her.  Clever stuff.  The rest of the play is dominated by scenes involving Theseus and Hippolytus.  All that made it clear to me why Euripides called his play Hippolytus, not Phaedra.  I wonder if the audience at our production will see it the same way that I did at rehearsal.
By contrast, in 1677 the French playwright Jean Racine named his version of the story Phèdre.  Racine puts his title character more at the centre of the play than Euripides did.  He called her the play’s tragic heroine on Aristotleian lines, neither completely guilty nor completely innocent.  He shows Phèdre admitting her feelings to Hippolytus and his rejection of her.  Also, Racine keeps her alive until ten lines from the end of the play when she dies from having taken poison out of remorse at her responsibility for Hippolytus’ death, while putting most of the blame on her Nurse.  Racine’s version, which Ted Hughes adapted in 1998, shows how the richness of Greek myth can be exploited and enjoyed across the millennia.

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